Thursday, November 15, 2012

What to do with a Large Basil Plant

Basil is my favorite herb. I love it for its taste as well as its fragrance. Last year I planted some basil, but it died. So this year, I planted twice as much. I started several plants from seed, but they didn't do well, so I picked up a couple of starter plants from a local nursery. They did great. 

It's now the end of the season, and the plants were trying their hardest to go to seed. I couldn't keep up with the flower plucking (if you let a basil plant go to seed, the plant will put on a bitter taste), so I decided to go ahead and harvest them.

I dehydrated the first plant, and wound up with two pint-jars of dried basil leaves, which is plenty even for me. I also like to have fresh basil on hand, but that's more difficult in the winter, for obvious reasons. Here's a way to preserve "fresh" basil for use during the non-growing season.

Here is about one-third of my plant, waiting to be washed and culled.

Even though I was diligent in removing flowers or seed pods, a few got by me. As I cleaned and stripped the plant, I saved any dried seed pods I came across. I will collect the seeds from those later.

As I cleaned and removed the leaves, I put them in my blender. Depending on the size of the plant, you may be able to process a lot of the stems with the leaves. However, this plant was so big that I didn't want to include the stems, because they were thick and woody.

Once I had a full blender, I just added some olive oil and blended. You can use a different oil if you want. I didn't measure the oil as I poured it in. The idea is to add enough to coat the chopped leaves, which will help with cohesiveness and also help the basil keep its color after freezing, which is what I'm going to do with this once I'm finished.

I set the blender on medium at first, but the leaves are so light that the blender's centrifugal force just blew the leaves to the sides where the blades couldn't reach. So I used the lower setting, which helped some. I still had to stop the blender and use a spoon to push the leaves back in reach of the blades a few times. If you own a food processor, you might have better luck using that over a blender. I just don't happen to own one.

I poured the chopped-up basil into an ice tray, pushing the leaves down into each opening and packing it in good and tight.

Once I had a full tray, I wrapped it tightly with some plastic wrap. The wrap won't stick to the tray, so I wrapped it halfway around again, where the plastic could stick to itself.

I wound up with two full trays from the basil plant. I let them freeze for about two days. I probably could have taken them out sooner, but I was busy, so I just left them in the freezer until I had time to work with them again. I pulled the trays out, unwrapped them and set them on the counter.

To loosen the basil from the tray, I tried the twisting trick that usually works for ice cubes, but it didn't work so great. I wound up using a knife to loosen up the basil cubes. Not that the basil was really stuck to the trays - I probably could have just turned the trays over and dumped out the basil, but I was trying to be neat.

The cubes came out mostly whole. This is the second time I've processed basil in this way. I think the first time I did it, the cubes held together better. I might have used less oil this time than I did previously.

We typically use these cubes to add to spaghetti sauce. However, they are also good for adding to soups and omelets, or you can drop one into your pan when cooking up meats or stir fry, too. You can use this in any recipe that calls for fresh basil (unless you need whole leaves, of course). This year's basil has a stronger flavor than the stuff I had two years ago, so I add half of a cube to a dish at a time, to make sure the taste isn't overpowering.

After the cubes are removed from the trays, I just store them in the freezer in sealable sandwich bags. You can leave them tightly wrapped in the trays if you want, but the baggies take up less freezer space. Any crumbs or broken cubes go into the bags with the whole cubes. Since I have so much this year, I might seal some in FoodSaver bags, to better protect against frostbite.

So there you have it. Yummy, "fresh" basil preserved for winter use. 

I left a small part of the plant in the ground and will allow it to go to seed, so I can collect the seeds for next year.

Monday, November 5, 2012

Lessons Learned with Calcium Hypochlorite

One of our neighbors is starting to be interested in prepping. The other day, he was asking questions about water storage. The hubster told him about calcium hypochlorite. This is usually marketed in swimming pool stores as high-test hypochlorite (HTH), or  "pool shock." I remember my Papa using this stuff to clean out his pool every year after winter. He would "shock" the pool, and we weren't allowed to swim in it for three days afterward. That's a long time when you're ten years old and you want to go swimming.

Some preppers keep calcium hypochlorite around for water purification purposes. Here and here are some good articles about it. The only thing is, it's a pretty serious chemical. It's an oxidizer and when a large amount of it mixes with a small amount of water, it can be highly reactive, generating high temperatures. HTH is self-reactive anyway, and produces chlorine gas as it decomposes. The fumes can be deadly if a person breathes too much of it. As an oxidizer, it's also corrosive, so calcium hypochlorite - and its vapors - need to be kept from contact with anything metal. It's probably not a good idea to store it around electronics either. Lastly, keep it away from other chemicals. If a spill were to occur and calcium hypochlorite accidentally mixed with another chemical, a fire could result.

We had several bags of HTH, and the hubster decided to give one to The Neighbor. The photo above is not the actual stuff we bought, but what we did buy was packaged in the same style - a sort of plastic, one-pound bag. (I've since learned that calcium hypochlorite is packaged in breathable containers to avoid pressure buildup while in storage). When we originally bought the calcium hypochlorite, the hubster put the bags inside a bucket, labeled the bucket with all kinds of warnings, and then placed the bucket inside a large, rubberized trash can we use for newspaper recycling. The idea was that the newspaper would soak up any humidity (or other moisture), hopefully keeping the HTH safe.

When the hubster opened the bucket to pull a bag out for The Neighbor, he found a surprise. Firstly, the fumes had built up in the bucket more than he anticipated, and he had to quickly step away to avoid breathing the chlorine gas. Once the fumes dissipated, he found that inside the bucket, the bags had grown brittle, and all but disintegrated in his hand when he tried to pick them up. He had also stored some instructions for use along with the store receipt inside a ziploc bag inside the bucket. The papers had turned a dull grey, making it unreadable, and came apart at the folds when I tried to take them out of the bag.  

So, what have we learned here?
  1. HTH is no joke. It's a very strong, very deadly chemical. 
  2. Don't leave HTH in the cheap plastic bag it's sold in. It doesn't take long for the bag to become brittle and fall apart. 
  3. While it needs to be stored in such a way that there's little, if any, chance that it could come into contact with moisture or with metal, one still has to be aware of chlorine gas buildup when opening the storage container. It's best to open the container outdoors or in a very-well-ventilated area. Be prepared to step away in order to avoid breathing deadly fumes.
  4. The bucket we have our calcium hypochlorite stored in, is probably not a full-proof, long-term storage solution. Eventually the bucket will probably become brittle and crack. We will continue researching better storage methods. I read at least one suggestion online to keep HTH in glass reagent bottles with a ground glass stopper. In the meantime, our plan is to check on the bucket about every three months or so to ensure its integrity.
Needless to say, we weren't able to give The Neighbor a bag of HTH. We did share the story with him, for informational purposes, and passed on some notes about using calcium hypochlorite for water purification. Make sure you do your homework before using, handling or storing dangerous chemicals.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Did You Know

...that there really was a hermit named Arsenius?

I was reading one of my older blog posts the other day, and came across some comments from my blog-friend Arsenius the Hermit, whom many of you also knew. Wondering again what had become of him (he stopped blogging about a year ago), I decided to search for "Arsenius the Hermit" online.

I found several links that spoke of St. Arsenius, referring to him by different descriptions: the Deacon, the Great, and of course, the Hermit. The links did not agree on all points, but the gist was always the same. He was born around 350 AD to a wealthy Roman family. He tutored the children of one or more emperors, before fleeing to Egypt, where he lived as a monk and hermit after renouncing his worldly possessions. He became a Desert Father, and people from all around sought audience with him, for he was considered very wise. However, he almost always refused to meet with people, and lived a life of harsh austerity. When he died, he left all his possessions to his disciples, which reportedly consisted of a tunic, a shirt, and some sandals.

Maybe you all already knew of St. Arsenius, but in case you didn't, I thought I'd share. Here are the links I read:

I found no new news of our friend Arsenius; only lots of older comments he had left on various blogs. Hopefully he is doing well.
"Why words, did I let you get out? I have often been very sorry that I have spoken, never that I have been silent."

Monday, October 29, 2012

Using Jar Attachments with a FoodSaver, and a Review

A year or two ago, I purchased an outdated FoodSaver on craigslist for $20. We used it more for adding a final seal to mylar bags than for sealing food to go in the freezer (the price of the bags can negate any food-saving benefits, if you're not careful). It was a good machine, but I wanted an updated one that had an attachment port.

Several months ago, I found what I was looking for: a sale :) I was able to pick up a newer, clearanced model plus two rolls of plastic for a great price, and of course while I was at it, I ordered one large-mouth and one regular-mouth jar attachment. Here's how you use them.

The jar attachments are made for use with canning jars.  Either one connects to the FoodSaver with the same small hose (there will be a small port on the front of the FoodSaver, but the exact placement  of the port varies with the model). The hose came with my FoodSaver unit, but I had to purchase the attachments separately.

Once your jar is filled, place the lid, but not the screw-on ring, on top of the jar. (The lid does not have to be heated or softened like it does for canning). Then simply fit the jar attachment over the top of the lid.  Now you should have the attachment fitted on top of the jar, and the jar attachment connected to the FoodSaver unit via the hose.

Next, if your FoodSaver has a lever that you must lock when sealing bags (usually on the side of the unit), go ahead and lock it.

Then, push the "Vacuum and Seal" button. The unit will make some noise while it sucks the air out of the jar. You will notice that as it gets closer to being sealed, the noise tone will change.

Once the FoodSaver is done removing the air, the noise will stop, the "Vacuum and Seal" button will remain lit, and the "Seal" button will automatically light up. The unit is sealing the jar now. After a few seconds, both lights will go out. Your jar should now be sealed.

Release the pressure by unlocking the lever on the side of the unit. You will hear a hissing noise when you do this. Then you should be able to pull the jar attachment off of the top of the jar.

Check your jar to make sure it is sealed. Try picking up the jar by the lid. If the lid comes off in your hand, then the jar didn't seal properly. If the lid does not come off, set the jar back down and place the tip of your finger in the middle of the jar lid, and push down. If the lid moves up and down, the jar did not seal properly and air is still able to get into the jar. Remove the lid using your fingernails or a butter knife. If you can remove the lid without damaging it, you should be able to reuse it. However, if you bend the edge of the lid while opening it, the lid will not be able to achieve a good seal again. Throw it away and use a new one when resealing the jar.

Jars sealed with FoodSaver & oxygen absorber.
The jar in the photos above is the jar of cranberries I recently dehydrated, and blogged about. Since I plan to use them up soon, I didn't add an oxygen absorber to the jar. I know that the FoodSaver is supposed to suck all the air out of the jar before using it, but I'll talk more about that in a minute. If I am putting food up for long-term storage, I add an oxygen absorber and use the FoodSaver as well. That way, if one fails, hopefully the other will finish the job.

Now, that's the short story. Here is what happened when I tried to seal some jars with the FoodSaver and the regular-mouth jar attachment.

I have used both sizes of the jar attachments previously, with no problems. However, this time when I tried to use the regular-mouth attachment, the FoodSaver would go through the motions and seal the jar. But when I tried to remove the attachment from the jar, it would pull the lid off with it. I tried it a few times and it kept happening. Then the rubber gasket inside the jar attachment came off. I reseated it (it's not glued in or anything; it just fits in a groove), but after that, it came out almost every time I tried to use it. I don't know what changed from the previous times when I used it without incident; maybe the gasket warped or something, but that's just a guess.

So, after trying about a hundred times to get the jar to seal, and then getting the hubster to try, I got online and googled the jar attachment. I found several reviews on Amazon where other people had had the same problem. I guess it is a fault with the attachment. However, no one seemed to have the problem with the wide-mouth jar attachment. Weird.

I saw where a few people said they had luck with placing two lids on the jar and then using the jar attachment, so I tried that. Lo and behold, it worked! I will try that from now on if I continue to have problems. However, some of the reviewers said that worked for them sometimes, but not always. It may be that I have to just use wide-mouth jars with the FoodSaver from now on, and save the regular-mouth jars for actual canning.

At least one reviewer on Amazon doesn't think the FoodSaver actually removes all the air from the jar. He tested it by turning an empty, vacuum-sealed jar upside down in a bucket of water, and then prying the lid loose, and seeing how much water could actually enter the jar. Water could only fill 20% of the jar, which, he says, means the other 80% of the jar was filled with air. Sounds plausible to me, but then, I wasn't in the room when he did the experiment, and rather than try to recreate it myself, I think I'll just add an oxygen absorber to the jar for long-term storage.

Friday, October 26, 2012

Cranberries & Mushrooms, revisited

I checked the dehydrator when I got up for work the next day. The mushrooms were drying nicely, but weren't quite done, so I turned the temperature down about ten degrees and left the dehydrator running while I went to work. The hubster gets home first, so I called him that afternoon and asked him to turn off the dehydrator. When I got home, I checked the mushrooms and they looked great.

I also checked on the cranberries. They had been soaking for almost 24 hours by this point, so I drained them and spread them out on a pizza pan lined with parchment paper, and put them in the freezer for two hours. This is supposed to help them dehydrate faster, but I'm not sure I believe it.

The hubster brought me two canning jars from the back where we keep them, and I proceeded to fill them with the dehydrated mushroom slices. I had so many I had to grab a third jar. We will eat these relatively quickly, so I didn't add an oxygen absorber to the jars, but I did seal them with my FoodSaver.

24 oz of cranberries = one pint dehydrated.
After two hours, I pulled the cranberries out of the freezer and transferred them to the dehydrator trays. I  lined the dehydrator trays with plastic wrap so the berries wouldn't fall through the holes in the trays. I set the temperature at about 155 degrees and left them to dehydrate overnight.

I checked them periodically throughout the next day, but they were dehydrating very slowly. I did notice a berry or two that didn't seem to be shrinking at all. I punctured them with a steak knife, just to make sure the skin was severed enough to allow the berry to dehydrate properly. I also pulled back the edges of the plastic wrap lining the trays, to allow better air flow in the dehydrator.

I'm not sure how long I left them in the dehydrator. It was well over 24 hours. I'm still worried that they didn't dehydrate well enough to put them up for long-term storage, so I will probably try to use them up fairly quickly. Anybody have a good recipe that uses craisins?

Thursday, October 25, 2012

Cranberries & Mushrooms

No, not together. I recently got a good deal on some mushrooms (cheap) and two, 12-oz bags of cranberries (free!), so I thought I'd dehydrate them both.

I have dehydrated mushrooms before and we use them in all sorts of stuff - soups, sauces, spaghetti, omelets, etc. I have never dehydrated cranberries before, so I thought it would be fun to give it a try.

I started with the cranberries, giving them a good rinsing while I put some water on to boil. Cranberries have a slightly tough, waxy outer skin, and if you just threw them into the dehydrator like that, they'd turn into rock-hard little balls. You have to crack their skins, similar to what you do with tomatoes when getting them ready to can, only you don't have to remove the skin from the cranberries - just crack it.

Cranberry, too mushy for dehydrating.

I put about half the cranberries into the boiling water at a time. It only takes a minute (maybe less) for the skins to start cracking. They actually make a popping sound, kind of like popcorn popping. As soon as the skins crack, take them out of the water. If you leave them in too long, they quickly turn to mush and aren't good for dehydrating.

After I finished cracking the skins, I let the leftover water cool for a few minutes, then added it to some sugar to make a simple syrup. I used about 2/3 cup of sugar to 3/4 cup of water and stirred it til the sugar dissolved, then added the cranberries. I covered them and let them marinate overnight. You can skip this step if you don't want to sweeten your cranberries, but I wanted to minimize their tartness.

An adult beverage seems to help the slicing go faster.
Meanwhile, I had this big pile of mushrooms to deal with. They all had to be washed and sliced. Once upon a time I walked into a store and found already-sliced mushrooms on sale. Once. Since then I've only found whole mushrooms at the bargain price, but that's okay...I don't mind the slicing. Much.

One-third down, two-thirds to go (the mushrooms, not the drink).

I'd slice a bunch, then stop and put them on dehydrator trays, then slice some more, then get the picture. I put them on the trays kind of thickly because I was worried they wouldn't all fit. Turns out I had room to spare, so I went back and thinned them out some, which will help them dry faster. Once I had the trays filled, I turned the dehydrator on at about 135 degrees.

While I was slicing mushrooms, the hubster was making dinner. By the time I got done with the cranberries and the mushrooms, I was ready to get off my feet and enjoy my tostadas. The mushrooms will dehydrate and the cranberries will marinate overnight.
The hubster says I make my tostadas too puny. What do you think?

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Emergency Notebooks

Recently I've been spending a lot of time researching and printing out information that might be useful in a grid-down, or really any, emergency situation. I've culled the best stuff from a bunch of websites (with credits, of course), printed it, organized it, and voila! I'm now the proud owner of a 5-notebook library on emergency survival.

I divided all the information into five main categories, which then became the notebook titles you see in the photo. Then, within each notebook I divided everything into subcategories, with a sort of table of contents at the front of each notebook to hopefully help make it easier to find what I'm looking for.  Each topic is housed in its own sheet protector, making it easier for me to remove it from the notebook when I need it without having to open the binder, while also lessening the wear and tear on all those sheets of paper.

I had some store-bought dividers that I tried to use for the subcategories, but they were smaller in size than the sheet protectors, so I spent more time searching for the dividers than just flipping through all the pages. The hubster suggested using some manila folders he had in his file cabinet. I cut the folders in half, put masking tape along the cut edge on the side of the folder with the tab (as reinforcement), and then punched holes through the folder and tape so I could insert them in the notebooks.

The new tabs extended farther than the sheet protectors - well, for the most part - making them easier to see and read.

I was able to scavenge the notebooks themselves from various places. I did wind up having to buy more manila folders and more sheet protectors, but now I have plenty of both, so if I want to add to my notebooks or even make up an additional notebook, I should be able to do it without having to buy anything else.